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Will & Harper Sundance Review: Will Ferrell Embraces His Friend’s Transition in a Joyful Road Movie

Everyone goes through their own journey towards self-acceptance, but it can help to have a celebrity friend along for the ride. Harper Steele, a long-time member of the Saturday Night Live writing staff, sent an email to family and friends during the pandemic to inform them that she had officially transitioned. Several members of the SNL cast responded warmly, but none as enthusiastically as Will Ferrell. His idea? To take a road trip around the country, repeating some of the key stops Steele used to make regularly and to experience them for the first time as an outwardly-identifying woman, with Ferrell there to provide both some degree of protection and a large dose of affirmation. Will & Harper, which documents their sixteen-day car trip, is a winning and marvelously enjoyable portrait of friendship.

Audiences will almost definitely know Ferrell – though the few locals and tourists who don’t seem to know who he is elicited big laughs from those in attendance at the film’s premiere – but likely won’t know Steele. While she later makes reference to her dead name in a negative way, the film introduces her as Andrew, showing photographs and having Ferrell describe her using male pronouns. But after that start, it’s an entirely supportive and fresh experience. Steele acknowledges that Ferrell may have intrusive questions about her transition and that she is more than ready to answer all of them, and she also wants to know about how Ferrell first reacted to the news. It’s an intriguing question of whether these are two people on their latest adventure after decades of friendship or acquaintances starting from scratch because Ferrell doesn’t really know Steele as Harper.

Will Ferrell, Harper Steele in Will & Harper (Courtesy Sundance)

This isn’t meant to be a definitive portrait of what it’s like to be transgender in America, but rather an intimate story of friendship centered on one particular person. Ferrell mentions at every juncture that Steele has recently transitioned, inviting warm sentiments from a few families in rural Oklahama and typically strong messages of support, even from those in a bar with a “Fuck Biden” flag hanging on the wall. But when Ferrell dons a costume and tries to eat a seventy-two-ounce steak in an hour in Amarillo with hundreds of smartphones filming him, a flurry of hateful tweets are shown on screen. Steele also recognizes that Ferrell’s celebrity status skews the experiment in a major way, and can’t serve as a true representation of what it’s like to travel through rural America as a trans person.

Ferrell introduced the Monday evening Sundance World Premiere of the film at a fully packed Eccles Theater by expressing that he had imagined it might debut at 10am in someone’s garage, and that this launch exceeded all his expectations. Director Josh Greenbaum, whose recent credits include Strays and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, has crafted a fully engaging film that makes excellent use of its multiple cameras to make audiences feel like they’re actually on the road with these two friends. Their conversations feel natural and no one ever acknowledges the camera in a distracting way, aside from Ferrell’s goofy introduction, which pokes fun at documentary style.

Will Ferrell, Harper Steele in Will & Harper (Courtesy Sundance)

That Steele spent her life as a comedy writer suggests that she’s quite funny, and Ferrell absolutely is, too. As a result, so much of the film is full of laughs, whether they’re actively joking or just making each other smile with comments. There are serious moments as well that speak to how Steele continues to grapple with painful memories of the past. Seeing Ferrell break down, as he comes to terms with how he never knew what she was going through and couldn’t support her through it. Steele never seems resentful, and instead is grateful that her longtime friend wants to invest in getting to know the person that she’s now ready to share with the world.

As referenced multiple times throughout the film, Ferrell has had many well-known roles, and it’s fun to see him playing himself. Audiences will surely enjoy the casual meet-ups with other SNL faces like Kristen Wiig and Molly Shannon, and the film does a good job of balancing those moments with more intimate time spent just with its two subjects and the open road. The premiere received a thunderously positive response at its Sundance premiere, and hopefully the constant stream of laughter bellowing throughout the audience will convince its eventual distributor to release it theatrically rather than simply push it to streaming. Whatever home it finds, it will be a success, both as an entertaining, truly enjoyable film and a momentous show of solidarity from a prominent actor.

Talent: A
Story: A-
Crafts: A-
Awards Potential: Best Documentary Feature, Best Original Song
Box Office Potential: Depends on who picks it up.
Renewability: None. This is the full story.

Overall Score: A-

Will & Harper just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, but no distribution has been announced, as of yet.

Company: Delirio Films
Cast: Will Ferrell, Harper Steele
Director: Josh Greenbaum
Producers: Rafael Marmor, Will Ferrell, Jessica Elbaum, Josh Greenbaum, Christopher Leggett
DP: Zoë White
Editor: Monique Zavistovski
Score by: Nathan Halpern



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